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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Reflection: Dance Mission presents Prumsodon Ok “A Deepest Blue” April 21, 2024 -Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco

On Sunday April 21 at Dance Mission Theater, I, and perhaps 100 others, bore witness to the world premiere/closing night of Prumsodun Ok’s A Deepest Blue. Deepest blue as in grief without measure, or the primordial depths of the ocean, perhaps also the blue representing purity and justice in the Cambodian flag. 

Ok is Khmer-American, the child of Cambodian refugees raised in Long Beach, CA.  A scholar and an activist, a charismatic speaker, a transcendent dancer, a risk-taking performance artist, and an unapologetically queer person, Ok has been an important spokesperson for the beauty and significance of ancient Khmer dance.  As a gay bi-cultural person Ok walks a narrow path which one suspects, after watching A Deepest Blue, has been difficult and doubt-filled.  

Trained in the ancient art of Khmer classical dance, which is typically reserved for women, Ok has invested much of his being in the resurrection, preservation, and reinvention of his ancestors’ beloved tradition. It is an art form that was almost lost to the Khmer Rouge’s genocide of the 1970’s, as 90 percent of the dance’s practitioners lost their lives.  

While there is no printed program, the website states that “this will be the final performance by Prum, who came into his own as an artist as a young student at the San Francisco Art Institute and in the small art spaces and theaters of the city’s Mission District.”

As a preface to the performance, amid the woody scent of burning incense, one of Ok’s students read aloud a heart-rending letter from Prumsodon referencing his decision, primarily due to the loneliness of leadership, to close his ground-breaking gay dance company in Cambodia, effective December 2023, and to stop performing after this evening.  In the future Ok hopes to “help realize the dreams of others” and “lead a philanthropic life.” 

Beyond the biographical, the letter introduced the guest artists from Japan: gagaku musicians Ota Yutaka, Kunimoto Yoshie, and Fumiya Otonashi, as well as the Venerable Nuiya Toshiya of Shogakuin Temple in his artistic debut. A Deepest Blue incorporates Cambodian and Japanese traditions and is inspired by the Japanese folk tale of Toyotama-hime, the beautiful daughter of Ryujin, the god of the ocean.

Waves crashed as a mysterious red glow from below slowly revealed an apparition, the near naked body of Prumsodon Ok. Clothed only in draw-string shorts, he faced us, arms at his sides. “Standing on the shore, do you fear the ocean at night?” projected text inquired.  Ok moved with grace and patience, imperceptibly assuming the characteristic curvilinear shapes of Khmer classical dance, the hyperextended elbows and fingers curved unnaturally outward, away from the palms.  Bending toward the floor, Ok is swallowed by darkness.

A high sustained recorder-like tone broke the silence, as Ok’s bowed torso etched by a high green backlight, emerged once more. Swimming in the current, he drew arms up to meet above his head before pushing them downward. As meager sunlight wanes at greater depth, the lights ebbed until only an after image of Ok inching backward remained.

Japanese Buddhist monk Nuiya Toshiya knelt before a Taiko drum, its deep and hollow volleys alternating with the sound of the bachi sticks hitting wood. Three Gagku wind instrumentalists, barefoot and dressed in white, processed ritualistically into the space.  Each offered unique notes as they surrounded Ok. Known for its other-worldly sound, Gaguku is ancient Japanese Imperial Court music from the 5th to 10th Centuries, associated with Buddhism.

Ok rose gradually to assume a series of elegant poses upon a subtly bent standing leg, with a flexed wrist, or attenuated fingers used to communicate primeval narratives.  His sinuous flow of movement supported by beatific expression was hypnotic. Into this tranquil undersea garden, symbols of human consumption intruded. A milk jug, a Coke can, an aqua plastic bag, floated above Ok’s head, skillfully maneuvered, at the end of long sticks, by a trio in black.  Distressed, Ok pounded his chest before shoving the garbage-purveyors offstage.

Refuse banished, he stood arms flowing, his back to us, fully vulnerable to the whims of man, as two buckets of oil were poured over his head, coating him in dark-brown viscosity. Shiny and defaced Ok rotated toward us; his poignant image reflected in the huge puddle. 

In silence, the trio approached from behind, to lay a heavy large-gauge net across Ok’s shoulders.  It is a manifestation of the fishing nets which contaminate the oceans and perhaps also a representation of the mantle of cultural responsibility he carries. His neck precariously strangled by the cords, Ok was dragged groaning in pain. Slipping in the oil slick, the trio struggled with Ok’s weight as we looked on, frozen in horror. Ok is abandoned to his oily, net-bound fate, left to weep inconsolably.

Ocean sounds swelled in volume and ferocity as we sat in despairing darkness once more. The water’s constancy and power caused the risers under our feet to vibrate.  After a time, the musicians entered and sang, as visual text, which I assumed to be the lyrics, scrolled along the backdrop. The song spoke of the promise of enlightenment, the presence of the divine in all things, and our potential to become a new person each day.

Toshiya chanted as he performed a water blessing, washing Ok in water and flower petals. Next, the four scrawled upon Ok’s prayerful figure. In what appeared to be red lipstick, they tattooed his oily face, arms, legs, and torso in iconography.

Alone, but for the taiko drumming, OK embodied an angry warrior, with high steps and arm jutted skyward.  Speedy, athletic attacks, high kicking confrontations were repeatedly confounded as the expanding oil field made controlled movement impossible.  It was painful to watch this fine artist struggle, unable to get a decent foothold.  While the metaphor of the untenability of continued excellence atop an unstable foundation was clear, it was less clear whether OK had anticipated how difficult it would be to display his fighting stances and how fully helplessness would need to be accepted.

A Deepest Blue ended as it began with the pacific countenance of Ok, arms open and receptive.  With audible breaths and quiet tears, we confronted one another’s humanity. Even a visionary can only carry a culture for so long.

It was devastating.  At its conclusion, we sat in silent revery for Ok’s honesty and bravery.  This was my first time seeing Ok dance, but the room was full of his teachers, students, colleagues from the Bay Area and beyond. If I felt slayed by his decision to discontinue performing, how must they have felt?

Prumsodon Ok (center) bows with Japanese guest artists in A Deepest Blue photo: J. Norris

The cast of Prumsodon Ok's A Deepest Blue at Dance Mission, April 21, 2024 photo: J. Norris

Reflection by Jen Norris, published April 22, 2024

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